Image of the Noble Savage in Literature
Image of the Noble Savage in Literature
An idealized concept of native cultures as being uncorrupted by the influences of civilization.
The idea of the Noble Savage, according to critic Hoxie N. Fairchild, resulted from “the fusion of three elements: the observation of explorers; various classical and medieval conventions; the deductions of philosophers and men of letters.” While scholars debate as to whether Jean-Jacques Rousseau was truly the creator of the literary tradition of the Noble Savage, the concept dates all the way back to the classical period. The overriding literary image of the Noble Savage throughout history is one of a figure who is uncorrupted by civilization and possesses a kind of innocence that has been lost by civilized cultures.
From the fifteenth through the nineteenth centuries, the concept of the Noble Savage became a popular element in literature. Columbus wrote of a people who were generous, gentle, had physical beauty, and had minds open to being trained. Voyagers and travel writers for over two centuries proclaimed the “natural goodness of the savages of America and the islands of the south seas.” Many of these travel writers commented on the natural virtues possessed by these Noble Savages, and based on what they observed, raised doubts as to the value of civilization. Many scholars credit Jean-Jacques Rousseau as the primary figure in the history of the Noble Savage concept. According to Rousseau, “the noble savage is an individual living in a ‘pure state of nature’—gentle, wise, uncorrupted by the vices of civilization.” Although the idea of the Noble Savage existed long before Rousseau, he is generally credited with formalizing the concept.
Commentary on the idea of the Noble Savage in literature has covered a wide range of topics and perspectives. As to the origin of the concept, Ter Ellingson claims that there are still unanswered questions, and concluded, “that Rousseau's invention of the Noble Savage myth is itself a myth.” Stelio Cro argues that Rosseau loved the idea of the Noble Savage because he saw him as a figure of freedom: “physical freedom as opposed to slavery and tyranny, moral freedom as opposed to religious discrimination or superstition.” According to critic Hoxie N. Fairchild, the Noble Savage is really a creation of philosophers who read into explorers' narratives a concept that would support their disillusionment with civilized society. In examining travel writers, Lewis Saum argues that fur-trade literature shows a concern on the part of the fur traders that the Noble Savage was being corrupted by the encroaching civilization. Terry Jay Ellingson disagrees, claiming that many travel writings depict natives in a very negative light and that these works should be “taken into account if only for the sake of balance, to counteract the tendency built up over a century and a half of unquestioning acceptance of the myth of the Noble Savage.” Roy Pearce argues that the Noble Savage was a literary invention used for the purpose of creating a history and a culture in America, but one “in which the idea of savagism … compromised the idea of the noble savage and then absorbed and reconstituted it.” Hence, he argues, in the ideology and belief reflected in the literature of the time, natives transformed and became what Americans needed as the country grew. Ironically, the depiction in literature of the Amerindians as Noble Savages was indeed a myth, according to critic Olive Patricia Dickason, who claims that they were “far from being uninformed savages in the ‘infancy of nature,’ [but] were the products of cultures that had evolved over many centuries.”
Supplément au Voyage de Bougainville (dialogue) 1772
Michel de Montaigne
Of the Cannibals (essay) 1578-80
Jean Jacques Rousseau
Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality Among Men (essay) 1750 [A Discourse on Inequality]
Second Discourse on Inequality (essay) 1755
The Social Contract (essay) 1762
L'Ingénue (prose) 1767
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Criticism: Overviews And Development
SOURCE: White, Hayden. “The Forms of Wildness: Archaeology of an Idea.” In The Wild Man Within: An Image in Western Thought from the Renaissance to Romanticism, edited by Edward Dudley and Maximillian E. Novak, pp. 3-38. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1972.
[In the following essay, White examines the history of the Wild Man image throughout history, concluding that the image of the Wild Man as viewed in literature is a criticism of the security and peace-of-mind brought by civilization.]
The subject of these essays is the Wild Man during his age of triumph, the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when he was viewed as “the Noble Savage” and served as a model of all that was admirable and uncorrupted in human nature. My task in this introductory essay is to say something about this Wild Man's pedigree, to reconstruct the genealogy of the Wild Man myth, and to indicate the function of the notion of wildness in premodern thought. In order to provide the background required, I shall have to divide the cultural history of Western civilization into rather large, and perhaps indigestible, chunks, arrange them in clusters of possible significance, and serve them up in such a crude form as to obscure completely the great variety of opinions concerning the notion of wildness which is to be found in ancient and medieval literature. What I shall finally offer, therefore, will look more...
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SOURCE: White, Hayden. “The Noble Savage: Theme as Fetish.” In First Images of America: The Impact of the New World on the Old, edited by Fredi Chiappelli, pp. 121-35. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.
[In the following essay, White discusses the history of the Noble Savage theme, proposing that the concept contains attributes of a fetish in the sense that form is believed to reflect content. White maintains that Europeans not only fetishized native peoples, but fetishized their own culture.]
The theme of the Noble Savage may be one of the few historical topics about which there is nothing more to say. Few of the topoi of eighteenth-century thought have been more thoroughly studied. The functions of the Noble Savage theme in the ideological debates of the age are well-known, its remote origins have been plausibly identified, and what John G. Burke calls its “pedigree” has been precisely established by historians of ideas.1 Archival research will no doubt turn up new instances of the use of the theme in the imaginative and political literature from the Renaissance to the Romantic period and beyond, but the chances of adding to our understanding of the concept, in any historically significant way, would seem remote. In future studies of eighteenth-century cultural history, the “Noble Savage theme” is likely to be consigned to those footnotes reserved for subjects...
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SOURCE: Beauchamp, Gorman. “Montaigne, Melville, and the Cannibals”. Arizona Quarterly 37, no. 4 (winter 1981): 293-309.
[In the following essay, Beauchamp examines the use and development of the Noble Savage as a literary device, highlighting the use of the Noble Savage in the writings of Montaigne and Melville.]
From his inception, the Noble Savage has served as a weapon in ideological warfare, a convenient stick figure with which to beat civilized man over his corrupt head. As early as the first Christian century, Tacitus was belaboring his fellow Romans with the image of the simple, brave, virtuous Germani living like noble Stoics all in the wilds beyond the Rhine, their moral excellence held up as a rebuke to the decadent, dishonest, immoral civilization along the Tiber. This tendentious pattern persists in Western history, recrudescing, with appropriate variations, in the works of Montaigne and Bartolomé de Las Casas, Rousseau and Diderot, in Chateaubriand's Atala and Byron's The Island and the great efflorescence of Romantic primitivism that followed. The Noble Savage survives yet today in the pose of the Noble Madman, whose putative insanity ironically reveals the true and greater madness of the “sane” world—that motif celebrated in such cult favorites as Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Philippe de Broca's film The King of Hearts.1...
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SOURCE: Ellingson, Ter. “The Noble Savage Myth and Travel-Ethnographic Literature.” In The Myth of the Noble Savage, pp. 45-63. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.
[In the following essay, Ellingson surveys travel writings throughout history, maintaining that the idea of the Noble Savage was not widely held by the writers of these works or by the general population.]
In the interval between Lescarbot's invention of the Noble Savage concept at the beginning of the seventeenth century and its reemergence as a full-blown myth in the 1850s, the Noble Savage appears to have receded into a state of virtual nonexistence. Although no one could say with certainty how many instances of discursive linkage of the terms “noble” and “savage” occur in the thousands of travel-ethnographies produced during this period, anyone who takes the trouble to carefully read more than a few of them can verify that such linkages do not occur in the vast majority of works. Most writers, even in the eighteenth century, when popular myth has it that belief in the Noble Savage was almost universal, simply do not juxtapose the two terms. In the few cases where they do occur together, a closer look reveals that juxtapositions of nobility and the “savage” reveal only the most ambiguous and vestigial links with either Lescarbot's Noble Savage concept or the later myth. To understand this, we need to consider...
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Criticism: The Noble Savage In The New World
SOURCE: Saum, Lewis O. “The Fur Trader and the Noble Savage”. American Quarterly 15 (1963): 554-71.
[In the following essay, Saum examines the writings of the fur traders of North America, many of which portray natives as being corrupted by European settlers.]
In narrating his experiences in the Far-North as trader and explorer, Samuel Hearne of the Hudson's Bay Company included a lengthy treatment of that fascinating animal, the beaver. In doing so, “honest old Hearne,” as a nineteenth-century bibliographer called him,1 felt the obligation to temper glowing accounts of the beaver written by people with inadequate knowledge. According to him, they greatly overestimated the organizational ability, sagacity and ingenuity of this remarkable creature. Because such exaggerations were often so pronounced, Hearne playfully suggested the existence of an open competition among their perpetrators in devising falsehoods. According to Hearne, one unnamed author clearly outdid his fellows by leaving nothing to be desired in his discussion of beavers except “a vocabulary of their language, a code of their laws, and a sketch of their religion. …”2 This satiric jibe was a telling one. It recognized the gratuitous glorification of natural forms, and it suggested that such efforts were the work of persons well removed from the supposed virtues of the nature being described....
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SOURCE: Jennings, Francis. “Savage Form for Peasant Function.” In The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism, and the Cant of Conquest, pp. 58-84. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1975.
[In the following essay, originally presented in 1971, Jennings argues that the English conception of the natives of North America continually changed to better fit the purposes of the colonists, whewther as trading allies or military enemies.]
In his book on the Canadian fur trade, Harold A. Innis has conceived of the contact between Europe and the Americas, not as a collision of civilization and savagery, but as a meeting of two civilizations, one relatively more complex than the other, but both extremely responsive to each other.1 Innis's comment referred particularly to economic relations, which will be discussed at length hereafter, but it is also applicable in other contexts. If the two societies were comparable as civilizations, then their member persons were comparable as human beings.
To the persons involved in contact situations there was at first some doubt on this score. For a brief while Columbus's crew were “persons from the sky” to the West Indians, and the Mexicans debated too long for their own good whether Cortés's troops were gods.2 Indian disillusionment was not long postponed.
Europeans, however, have had a...
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SOURCE: Shaner, Richard C. “Simms and the Noble Savage.” American Transcendental Quarterly 30, no. 1 (spring 1976): 18-21.
[In the following essay, Shaner analyzes William Gilmore Simm's work The Yemassee, where the Native American is depicted as a creature who needed to be subject to the white man.]
By the time nineteenth-century American novelists were writing of the colonization of America, the lives and cultures of the Indian tribes already were obscured not merely by change and passage of time, but by the world view of the European. The same is true of the land. Whatever the American wilderness was in its existential reality, Western man seems to have seen it as the raw material which could give substance to the mythic ideals of a society which had failed hitherto to achieve its dreams. Of the land the early settlers primarily asked sustenance. Of the Indians they sought, primarily, cooperation or death. But each was a part of the movement to build in the New World the physical reality of those ideals which, though never realized in the Old, never had been relinquished. In American fiction, therefore, we must not look for the Indian, or the land, as they actually were, but rather for the western dream and the way the European tried to shape them by that dream. In the American novel may be discerned what we asked of the red man and his land, and what we made of both.
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SOURCE: Dickason, Olive Patricia. “L'Homme Sauvage.” In The Myth of the Savage: And the Beginnings of French Colonialism in the Americas, pp. 61-84. Edmonton: The University of Alberta Press, 1984.
[In the following essay, Dickason traces the development of the European view of Amerindians, arguing that the European view of Native Americans as savages discounts their cultural and political systems.]
Europe's discovery of the Amerindian is usually represented as affording her the first large-scale encounter with man living in a state of nature.1 According to this view, that discovery was largely responsible for the development of the European idea of l'homme sauvage, the savage who could be either noble or debased, but who in any event was not civilized. Such achievements as the city-states of Mexico, Central America, or Peru were either overlooked or else were dismissed as being, at best, barbarous. An examination of the concept of savagery reveals that its origin is both more complex and far older than such a view would indicate. In fact, it involved the well-known Renaissance folkloric figure of the Wild Man; early Christian perceptions of monkeys, apes, and baboons; and the classical Greek and Roman tradition of the noble savage.2
Columbus's encounter with the Arawaks and Caribs did not introduce Europeans to a previously unknown kind of man; what it did was to...
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SOURCE: Pearce, Roy Harvey. “The Virtues of Nature: The Image in Drama and Poetry.” In Savagism and Civilization: A Study of the Indian and the American Mind, pp. 169-95. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.
[In the following essay, Pearce examines how the colonists of America viewed the Native American, beginning with the romantic idea of the Noble Savage, but later viewing the Native American as simply savage.]
The indian over whom Americans finally triumphed was he whom they put in their plays, poems, and stories. New-rich in their discovery of the possibility of a national culture, they were certain that they could find the Indian's place in the literature into which that culture was to flower.1 He was part of their past, they knew; and in his nature and his fate lay a clue to the meaning of their future. Yet if they would treat him imaginatively, they faced a problem for the solution of which their national experience and understanding could not wholly prepare them.
For in the overpowering English literary tradition to which, even in their sanguinary cultural nationalism, they made obeisance, the Indian had been generally conceived as a noble savage, above and beyond the vices of civilized men, doomed to die in a kind of absolute, untouchable goodness; and American experience and understanding had been directed towards destroying just such a conception and...
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Criticism: Rousseau And The French Enlightenment's View Of The Noble Savage
SOURCE: Combee, Jerry, and Martin Plax. “Rousseau's Noble Savage and European Self-Consciousness.” Modern Age 17 (spring 1973): 173-82.
[In the following essay, Combee and Plax examines Rousseau's use of the Noble Savage as a vehicle to criticize European culture.]
Critical interpretations of Rousseau have commonly characterized him as either a revolutionary or a conservative romantic.1 The first interpretation, linking him with the French revolution, has generally seen him as a contributor to the development of a revolutionary consciousness and specifically as having been:
looked upon by many French revolutionary leaders and their spiritual descendants as the intellectual defender of the “liberty, equality, and fraternity” which became the slogan of those who overthrew the ancient monarchy …2
The other interpretation of Rousseau as conservative-romantic3 has focused on his critique of the Enlightenment. The Discourse on the Sciences and the Arts has lent itself to this, for there Rousseau attacked the Enlightenment from the perspective of the ancient world and its civic virtues. The main inspiration for this interpretation, however, has been the Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality Among Men or the Second Discourse in which...
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SOURCE: Buchanan, Michelle. “Savages, Noble and Otherwise, and the French Enlightenment.” Studies in Eighteenth Century Culture 15 (1986): 97-109.
[In the following essay, Buchanan claims that the invention and idea of the Noble Savage became a notable element of literature, fiction, and drama in eighteenth century France because the belief was important in the thought of the French Enlightenment.]
The notion of the French philosophes' humanistic view of the savage continues to find wide acceptance, along with the belief in the capital role played by Montaigne and Rousseau in the development and concretization of the concept of the Noble Savage. Both commonplaces, having too long served as a springboard for studies of philosophical, aesthetic, political, and economic issues, should now take their place among the myths which underpin the thesis of the nobility of Man in Nature.
The belief in the importance of the Noble Savage in the thought of the Enlightenment gave rise to the corollary belief in its conversion into a notable element of fiction and drama in the literature of eighteenth-century France. Setting aside the possible relationship between life in nature and utopistic or socialistic societies, which is the chief premise of René Gonnard's La Légende du bon sauvage (1946), and accepting the reality of a continuing interest in exoticism which Gilbert Chinard endeavors...
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SOURCE: Cro, Stelia. “The Noble Savage: Allegory of Freedom.” In The Noble Savage: Allegory of Freedom, pp. 131-57. Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1990.
[In the following essay, Cro argues that, to Rousseau, the idea of the Noble Savage spoke to the principles of physical and moral freedom.]
THE NOBLE SAVAGE AS COMMONPLACE
By the middle of the eighteenth century the exoticism of the voyagers, who for over two centuries had proclaimed the natural goodness of the savages of America and the islands of the south seas, not only had inspired authors to write idealized accounts of the discovery and conquest of the New World, such as Marmontel's Les Incas, but it had inspired a radical new philosophy. In the words of Gilbert Chinard:
Ancient times had the Golden Age, the Middle Ages had the Terrestrial Paradise; at the time when the ancient myths were dead, or religion is buried by the attacks of the spirit of free inquiry, an ideal more updated, if I can say, certainly contemporary and at the same time exotic, has taken their place. The noble savage seems to incarnate all the ancient and Christian virtues, his dream comes from America and the Islands and from the accounts of the travellers come directly all the numerous utopias which appear before Rousseau, and which served as Rousseau's inspiration … The climax of that movement is...
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SOURCE: Ellingson, Ter. Introduction to The Myth of the Noble Savage, pp. 1-8. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.
[In the following essay, Ellingson questions the attribution of the idea of the Noble Savage to Rousseau, arguing that the concept is an ongoing tradition and should not be attributed to any one individual.]
THE MYTH OF THE “MYTH OF THE NOBLE SAVAGE”
More than two centuries after his death, Jean-Jacques Rousseau is still widely cited as the inventor of the “Noble Savage”—a mythic personification of natural goodness by a romantic glorification of savage life—projected in the very essay (Rousseau 1755a) in which he became the first to call for the development of an anthropological Science of Man. Criticism of the Noble Savage myth is an enduring tradition in anthropology, beginning with its emergence as a formalized discipline. George Stocking (1987: 153) has cited a reference as early as 1865 by John Lubbock, vice president of the Ethnological Society of London, the first anthropological organization in the English-speaking world; and other early citations include such leading figures as E. B. Tylor (1881: 408) and Franz Boas (1889: 68). The critique extends throughout the twentieth century, appearing in the work of scholars such as Marvin Harris.
Although considerable difference existed as to the specific...
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Baudet, Henri. Paradise on Earth: Some Thoughts on European Images of Non-European Man. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1965, 87p.
Provides commentary on the attitude of European and Western peoples toward non-Western cultures throughout the centuries.
Bissell, Benjamin. The American Indian in English Literature of the Eighteenth Century. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1925, 229p.
Overview of the treatment of Native Americans in English Literature, with an examination of the extent to which their existence was idealized.
De Lutri, Joseph R. “Montaigne on the Noble Savage: A Shift in Perspective.” French Review 49, no. 2 (December 1975): 206-11.
Evaluates Montaigne's account of the Noble Savage in the New World.
Fairchild, Hoxie Neale. “The Noble Savage: The Shaping of the Noble Savage Convention.” In The Noble Savage: A Study in Romantic Naturalism, pp. 1-22. New York: Russell & Russell, 1961.
Traces the origin of the idea of the Noble Savage, considering it a philosophical expression minimizing the importance of human intellect.
Moffitt, John F. and Santiago Sebastian. O Brave New People: The European Invention of the American Indian. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996, 399p....
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